Saturday, April 11, 2009

Why Hunger Strikes Don't Impress Me

Bolivia's presdent, Evo Morales, is on a hunger strike to gain more representation for his country's indigenous peoples, though some charge he only wants to increase his personal power.

Be that as it may, I've never been impressed or moved by hunger strikes. In 2006, I wrote a post occasioned by another person's hunger strike. Here's why:
From a Biblical perspective, it should be said, our bodies are precious gifts from God. Starving one's self is an act of contempt toward one's creator.

But the value of the gift of our bodies is compounded for Christians. Paul asks in First Corinthians 6:19: "Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own?"

I confess that I don't take adequate care of my body. I should exercise more. I should eat less and eat more healthfully. But there is no cause so great as to incite me to deliberately abuse God's gift by starving myself to death. God will never call someone to commit suicide, irrespective of how noble their cause.

China's Gender Holoaust

When a government's one-child policy meets a culture's bias against females, this is what happens.

Also see here.

Still praying...

In the gaps when folks aren't around for the vigil, which has amounted to a very short amount of time, I've been praying too. It's great to think that all through this night, the folks of Saint Matthew are praying for the community, the congregation, and the world!

I'm Still Up

It's 1:41 on Saturday morning as I begin this post. But I'm not suffering from insomnia.

I'm in the church fellowship hall right now for the Good Friday-Holy Saturday prayer vigil here at Saint Matthew. During the vigil, individuals come in for half-hour stints to pray in the sanctuary. They pray for the world, community, congregation, and the many prayer concerns we pray about regularly. It's a time of concerted, focused prayer.

I've done overnight prayer vigils at all three parishes I've served as a pastor these past twenty-five years, as well as at the congregation where I did my pastoral internship before that. Every time I've offered prayer vigils, they've turned out to be meaningful for all participants.

This year, between the evening Good Friday worship at Saint Matthew and the start of the vigil, I told my wife that every time I do one, I can't help thinking of Martha Schneider.

Martha, a member of our home church in Columbus, was in her sixties when I first knew her. She was a deeply devoted Christian and a very real person. For reasons that probably only God can explain, she and I hit it off in spite of a forty-some year age difference. Martha took me under her wing, encouraging and challenging me as God called me from my former atheism to a relationship with Him through Christ.

Maybe what most impressed me about Martha is that she exhibited a deep serenity and a winsome sense of humor born of her faith. She was one of the wisest people I've ever known. Once, when I was complaining about something I didn't like in my life, she said, "You know, Mark, it's not something we can't pray about." To this day, I try to remember that.

She was always deeply affirming. Whenever I taught or preached at our home church during my seminary years or after, Martha would walk up to me beaming, lean over to my ear and say quietly, "I'm so proud of you." Or, "I love you." (Her husband, Eddie, was also a deeply affirming person, but not as verbal. After I'd preached my first sermon at our church, he walked up to me after nearly everyone was gone and said, "I wanted to tell you in the narthex, Mark, how gr..." But Eddie couldn't go on. He choked up and I just hugged him.)

One Sunday after worship, Martha approached me. "I have an idea for a prayer vigil," she told me. "Would you do it with me?"

I was in my mid-twenties, a new Christian, and had no idea what a prayer vigil was. But because the person asking me was Martha, I said, "Yes" immediately. It too was held overnight on a Good Friday and Holy Saturday. We had something like thirteen people show up and it was one of the most exciting things I've ever done, proof that if we will be still and wait on the Lord, allowing Him and His grace to get a place in the midst of our often noisy, bustling lives, He will meet us.

Martha did the vigils for several years after that, ultimately until I was called to serve my first parish in northwestern Ohio. I've been hooked ever since.

My wife always said that Martha was the only woman with whom she'd let me stay out all night. And I was always glad to have done so.

Martha died a few years ago. She's now in the presence of God in eternity. So, too, here on earth in the Saint Matthew sanctuary, are people participating in the prayer vigil, taking advantage of an inspired idea championed by a woman they've never met, but whose commitment to Christ is nonetheless touching them and strengthening their faith even as they pray for others.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Why Do We Call It "Good" Friday?

[I originally wrote and posted this last March 21. But it seems worth repeating on this Good Friday.]

This is what an inquisitive second-grader asked me a few weeks ago.

It's a sensible question. The day we commemorate as Good Friday brought multiple tragedies.

Good Friday, which this year falls on [April 10], is when Christians all over the world remember the day when Jesus of Nazareth, the One we believe was the Messiah (the Christ, God's Anointed King of kings) was crucified.

The Bible says that Jesus' death on a cross resulted from the rejection of the entire world, at least the entire world as known by Jesus' first-century followers: the people of God (the Judeans) and everybody else (the Gentiles), represented by the preeminent power of the day, the Roman Empire.

The prologue to the Gospel of John reminds us that Jesus was more than a human being. He was God enfleshed. Yet the whole world rejected Jesus. "He was in the world," John writes, "and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own [the world He made], and his own people did not accept him." (John 1:10-11)

The day we call Good Friday then, wasn't only tragic because the sinless God and Savior of the world died a horrible death. It was also tragic because a human race in need of salvation rejected God's outstretched hand, spurned the love of God, turned away from God Himself.

But there is an even deeper layer of tragedy to the day. God the Father, the first Person of the Trinity, perfect and sinless, was separated from Jesus in those horrible hours when Jesus hung on the cross. Why? Paul writes in the New Testament, "For our sake he [God the Father] made him [Jesus] to be sin who knew no sin..." (Second Corinthians 5:21). Jesus, in spite of His sinlessness, bore the weight of our sin. He embodied the sins of us all, taking our rightful punishment for sin. (Romans 6:23 tells us that "the wages of sin is death.")

There is a reason that Jesus did all this, which I'll address momentarily. But that reality can't in any way erase the awful agony Jesus endured of feeling utterly abandoned by the Father as He died on the cross. No more poignant words have ever been uttered on this planet than those Jesus cried out near the end of His earthly life, "My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?" (Matthew 27:46)

So, if Good Friday remembers that Jesus was rejected by the whole world and abandoned by God the Father, what could possibly be good about it?

That goes back to the reason that Jesus had for going to the cross. You see, the world thought in killing off Jesus, it was done with Him. Some of the more perceptive people who wanted Jesus dead understood that He was God and so thought that in killing Him, they were getting rid of God and God's rightful authority over their lives (our lives, too).

In short, they thought that Good Friday was all about what they did to Jesus. The subject of their sentences about Jesus' crucifixion would have been themselves. "We crucified Jesus," they would claim. Herod, the puppet king of Judea, known to have been a particularly violent, sadistic, and loathsome character, might have said, "I ordered Jesus' abuse. He was under my control." Pilate, the Roman governor, would have told anyone who would listen, "I exercised my power and had Jesus crucified."

But, in fact, the events of Good Friday were precisely what God wanted to happen. Jesus came into the world to die for us.

This is something that the wise men from the East seemed to know even when Jesus was a baby. Among the gifts they brought was myrrh, an aromatic resin used to anoint the dead, hardly a fitting present for a baby when you think about it, a bit like giving a gift certificate from a casket factory at a baby shower.

After He began His ministry, Jesus made it clear that He was intent on going to a cross to His disciples. You may remember what happened the first time Jesus talked about this:
...Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” (Matthew 16:21-23)
In the night before His crucifixion, Jesus was brought to Pilate for questioning. But Jesus refused to answer. That resulted in this exchange between the two of them:
Pilate therefore said to him, “Do you refuse to speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?” Jesus answered him, “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above... (John 19:10-11)
Jesus says of His life:
No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. (John 10:18)
We call it Good Friday because on the first one some two-thousand years ago, Jesus fulfilled God's plan. He took our punishment for sin and later, rose from death so that all who repent of sin and entrust their lives to Him will live forever.

So, the wages of sin is death, "but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord." (Romans 6:23)

Good Friday is good because, just as it was the route through which Jesus moved to Easter, it's also the route through which all who believe in Him share in His Easter victory!

[Thanks to Hugh Hewitt for linking to this post.]

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Only Sinners Need Apply

Thank God.

Servanthood: Living Our Faith

[This was shared during Maundy Thursday worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, this evening.]

John 13:1-17, 31b-35
In his book, The Journey: How to Live by Faith in an Uncertain World, Billy Graham recounts an incident from his long evangelistic ministry. He and some of the members of his team were invited to a remote and mountainous area of India called Nagaland. As Graham tells it:

“Nagaland has one of the largest concentrations of Christians in India...the occasion [for our visit] was the one-hundredth anniversary of the coming of missionaries to that area. Tens of thousands came to the celebration--some walking for days over rough jungle trails. One hundred thousand people, we were told, would be gathering each morning for a Bible study, in addition to the evening evangelistic meetings.”

He goes on to say: “When we arrived at Government House, where we were to stay, a man unloaded our baggage from the car, then took our shoes to wipe mud off them. I protested, saying we could do that, but he insisted. Only later did I discover that he would be leading the Bible study for those one hundred thousand people the next morning!”

“Here,” Billy Graham concludes, “was a man who truly exemplified the attitude of Christ by his humility and his willingness to serve others.”

On the first Maundy Thursday, Jesus, “got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself...poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him.”

One of those disciples, Peter, had already confessed that Jesus was “the Christ [God’s Anointed One].” And He also confessed Jesus to be “the Son of the Blessed.” That second title indicated that Peter saw that Jesus was one with God the Father.

So, here was God, washing the feet of His disciples, servant’s work, and Peter didn’t like it. You may remember from our Lenten readings the insight of Richard Foster into why Peter didn’t like Jesus crawling around on the floor to wash filthy feet. Peter’s initial refusal to let Jesus wash his feet, Foster says, “was an act of veiled pride. Jesus’ service was an affront to Peter’s concept of authority. If Peter had been the master, he would not have washed Jesus’ feet!”

During this Lenten season, we have focused on Jesus’ call to be servants of God and of our neighbors. The logo for these 40-Days to Servanthood is inspired by this incident from that Maundy Thursday when Jesus gave His disciples a command to love others as He had loved them and then showed them that true love and true greatness are about the willingness to serve.

But I have to confess something to you again tonight. It’s something I mentioned at the very beginning of this Lenten season and in spite of all my study and prayer, it’s still the way I feel: I would like to be a servant. I know that’s Jesus’ way. I know that a life of service to God and to others is the appropriate response of a person saved from sin and death by Jesus Christ. I know that I have a place in God’s kingdom because of what Jesus did for me on the cross and because I believe in Jesus. I know that love so great given so freely deserves my surrender. But it’s hard to surrender. I realize that in my sinful heart, I’d rather be served than be a servant.

By contrast, on the first Maundy Thursday, on the brink of His suffering and death, with every reason in the world to be turned in on Himself and filled with self-pity, Jesus served His disciples, faced His cross, drew strength from the Father, and commanded each of us to love just like He loves.

How do we do that? How can we be servants when everything inside of us and all the warped values of a selfish world fight against it?

First: We admit that both the sin on the inside of us and the selfishness we find so appealing in the world are too big for us to overcome. We admit that while we want to be servants, another part of us doesn’t want that at all. We pray like the man who sought healing for his child from Jesus: “Lord, I do believe; help my unbelief.” “Lord, I do want to be a surrendered servant; help the rebel in me.”

Second: We rely completely on the God revealed first to Israel and ultimately, in Jesus Christ. A few years ago, a young man from New England, in the beginning phases of recovery from alcoholism and drug addiction, happened on my blog and contacted me. After we’d been corresponding for several months, he wrote to me to say that he sensed a call to a particular area of service, helping others to recover from their addictions. He said that he sensed this call even though he had never been religious and wasn’t even certain what he believed about God.

Several weeks later, for reasons he couldn’t explain, he was walking down a street in his home city and felt drawn into a church where worship was happening. He later wrote to tell me about it. “I think I’m beginning to get it, Mark,” he said.

One week later, he made a presentation to some addicts taking their first tentative steps down the path to recovery. He wrote that he was frightened and yet at peace about it. He also said that he was relying on the God he was just beginning to get, but who, I could see, had been reaching out to him all along.

So, to be servants when everything inside of us and everything around us tells us to look out for number one, we must first, admit that the call to servanthood is too big for us to meet and second, rely completely on Christ. And there’s a third thing we need to do: We need to dare to serve.

On that night when He was betrayed, sitting with His disciples, Jesus could have simply told them to love. But Jesus wasn’t one of those, “Do as I say, not do as I do” preachers. He lived the love He commanded. He not only washed dirty feet and instituted Holy Communion, which allows us to “taste and see the goodness of the Lord,” He also left that room to face kangaroo justice, violent beating, hateful rejection, and a painful death on a cross. Jesus’ love was more than mere words. He dared to live it. He served. He served each one of us and every member of the human race.

And He calls us to love and to serve others in the same way, a fitting response to His love and service, a powerful way to demonstrate what happens when imperfect people like you and me rely on the perfect Christ and let His goodness and power work in us and through us.

The Savior Whose death we will remember tomorrow and Whose rising we will celebrate on Sunday has so much that He wants to accomplish in and through you and me. All of it can happen...
  • when we admit the sin inside us and around us is too big an impediment for us to be servants without His help;
  • when we rely completely on Jesus Christ; and
  • when, fortified by the power of God’s Spirit, Christ’s gift to all believers, we simply dare to serve.
We each have lots of opportunity to serve in our daily lives, no matter our ages or circumstances. And, under the leadership of our new servanthood team, we’ll have many other opportunities to serve together in Jesus’ Name. In the power of the risen Jesus, may we take advantage of as many of those opportunities as we can. Amen

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

"If you are a Christian in the world today, I think you have a mission...

...And that mission is to rely on God's goodness and to take hope from it. That mission is to both act and speak with hope. If you have no hope, get on your knees, confess your lack thereof, and ask God to supply what you need - for He will."

John Schroeder, hitting the nail on the head.

"Our hope is built on nothing less
"Than Jesus' blood and righteousness.
"No merit of my own I claim,
"But wholly lean on Jesus' Name.
"On Christ, the Solid Rock I stand,
"All other ground is sinking sand!"

A Look at This Sunday's Gospel Lesson

[This is meant to help the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, where I serve as pastor, to prepare for worship. But because we use Biblical texts used from the Revised Common Lectionary, I hope that others will get some benefit from reading this post too.]

Easter Sunday
April 12, 2009

The Bible Lessons:
Acts 10:34-43

Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24

1 Corinthians 15:1-11

Mark 16:1-8

Prayer of the Day:
O God, you gave your only Son to suffer death on the cross for our redemption, and by his glorious resurrection you delivered us from the power of death. Make us die every day to sin, that we may live with him forever in the joy of the resurrection, through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

A Few Thoughts on Mark 16:1-8
1. There are several theories about the ending of Mark's Gospel. (1) Some say that its ending is precisely as we have it in our Bibles, including vv. 9-20; (2) Others, maybe a majority of contemporary scholars, believe that it originally ended at v. 8; (3) Still others, most notably the well-known N.T. (Tom) Wright, hold that, based on the development of the rest of Mark's Gospel, the book couldn't have possibly originally ended at v. 8, but that the original ending is lost to us.

There are other theories as well, but hardly worth going into at this point.

2. Whatever the case, the Church, led by the Holy Spirit, has included vv.9-20, in our Bibles.

3. Nonetheless, Mark 16:1-8, gives us a stunning picture of the first events of the first Easter, one that doesn't tell us what to think or feel, but instead puts us in the places of the three female disciples who had come to anoint the body of Jesus, discovered an empty tomb, and a mysterious young man in white who tells them that Jesus has risen from the dead.

Verse-by-Verse Comments
1When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him.
1. Remember that the sabbath ran from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday, as is still true of the Jewish calendar. So, on the evening before they went to the tomb, these three disciples of Jesus purchased spices for anointing His body.

There's a little irony here in that Jesus is the Messiah (Hebrew) or the Christ (Greek), meaning Anointed One.

You remember that Jesus was quickly buried so that those who handled His body wouldn't be rendered ritually unclean for the celebration of the sabbath.

It was customary to anoint the body with spices--the verb in the original Greek of Mark's gospel is smear, rather than anoint--before it was placed in the tomb. Because multiple bodies might be placed in a tomb, it was important to do whatever was possible to combat the odor associated with decaying flesh. Tombs weren't usually the final resting places of bodies. They were left there to decompose long enough before being placed in ossuaries.

2. These are the three women are specifically mentioned in Mark 15:40-41, as witnesses of Jesus' death. That passage also mentions that they "provided for him when he was in Galilee." One commentator I consulted this week pointed out that care for the body of the deceased was, in those days, seen as expressing love for neighbor, on a par with giving to the poor.

3. In the Old Testament and Jewish law, the testimony of three witnesses was sufficient to certify the truthfulness of an assertion. But only the testimony of men was valid.

Yet, God chose women to be the first witnesses about Jesus' resurrection. The world might doubt their testimony. But all who are open to the Spirit of God know that in Jesus' kingdom, "there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:28).

4. By the way, there is no evidence that Jesus ever married. But had He chosen to do so, there would have been nothing wrong with that. I bring this up because of the occasional author who insists that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene.

2And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb.
(1) In pointing out that this day--what would be Sunday on our calendars--was the first day of the week, Mark is pointing to the new start that creation is given through Jesus Christ. "So if anyone is in Christ," Paul writes of those who believe and are baptized, "there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!" (2 Corinthians 5:17) In Jesus, the world starts over!

They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?”
(1) These women had no idea how they would complete the task they'd decided to take on. They went to the tomb anyway.

(2) We might wonder where the men were. Are these female disciples of Jesus more courageous than their male counterparts? Well, maybe.

But, keep in mind the status of women in that society. Women weren't regarded as fully adult human beings. Men didn't view women as threats and so women could go about with greater freedom and less chance of encountering trouble for their association with Jesus than the men would have had.

On Good Friday, even these three women watched Jesus' death "from a distance" (Mark 15:40).

When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back.
(1) Problem solved? Not really. Now, other problems must have suggested themselves to the women, including the possibility that Jesus' body had been taken away.

As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed.
(1) Mark doesn't tell us that this is an angel. It's safe to surmise as much, though.

(2) A "certain young man," often thought to be Mark himself, makes an appearance in the garden of Gethsemane. Some suggest that this is the same young man who meets the women in the tomb. There are numerous theories about the significance of the young man in Mark 14:51-52, as well as about his possible connection to this young man. But none of them seem to cut it to me.

But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him.
(1) The "young man" uses the same verb Mark has just used to describe the women's reaction to all that they've seen. "Don't be alarmed," he tells them. This is similar to the first words often used by angels in their Biblical encounters with human beings, "Don't be afraid."

(2) Notice that the young man affirms the reality of Jesus' death. He was crucified.

(3) He tells these witnesses to "look"--note well--that Jesus' body is gone.

7But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”
(1) The young man commissions these women to be witnesses, telling the other disciples and Peter to meet Jesus in Galilee.

(2) You may have heard me say it (or may have read where I've written it) before, but it's a fact: Dead men don't run.

The risen Jesus had gone ahead to Galilee, some sixty miles from this spot in Jerusalem, and the disciples were invited to catch up with Him.

(3) There's a deeper significance in this directive too. Biblical faith only looks back in order to gain guidance and inspiration for our lives. Biblical faith is primarily a forward-looking faith. God calls us to trustingly move from day to day in the certainty that Jesus is blazing a trail for us. Hebrews 12:1-2 get at this idea: "Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God."

(4) Why is Peter singled out as one to be informed? There seems to be a lot of informed speculation, but no real consensus on this question.

Is it because Peter is the designated leader?

Or is it because he denied Jesus three times on the night of Jesus' arrest?

Is it to assure us that Christ always seeks reconciliation with us, no matter how we may deny or betray Him?

Maybe all three explanations are true.

8So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
(1) Their fear was understandable.

(2) If this is the original ending of Mark's Gospel, it would fit with its strange start. In that case, the entire book would be seen as "the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the son of God," only made complete by our willingness to believe in Him and His resurrection.

(3) On this basis, I believe that there's sound reason to argue, contrary to what most scholars say, that Mark was not the first gospel written, that it may have been the last one written. It appears to have been composed not to evangelize non-believers, as is especially true of Luke's and John's gospels, but to Christians, already familiar with the story of Jesus. Mark only cites about nineteen words from all of Jesus' sermons. Again, I think that he assumes the church's familiarity with Jesus' words. His gospel comes as a reminder that Jesus' life, death, and resurrection are only the beginning. Jesus' followers are called to complete the gospel by repenting and following Him in His kingdom daily (Mark 1:14-15). Of course, I could be wrong. Nothing, in fact, is more likely, because I'm no scholar.

Monday, April 06, 2009

"Not since 1999 has a Reds season arrived with so much potential, so freighted with Ifs."

"The Reds aren’t just turning a page. They’re trying to re-write the whole book."

Paul Daugherty gives Reds fans reason to hope for the 2009 season which, for us, starts today. He says that this year's team is hungry and dedicated, devoid of the "sense of entitlement" he observed in past teams.

Read the whole thing. Daugherty's writing is always a treat.

[ADDED: A rundown of what's planned for Cincinnati's opening day festivities. Cincy is the only place I know that has an opening day parade. Some parents let their kids take the day off from school to go to the parade and other events, even just to watch them on TV.]

[UPDATE: Reds lost their opener 2-1.]

Sunday, April 05, 2009

The Unexpected King

[This was shared during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, this morning.]

Mark 11:1-11
Father Andrew Greeley tells the story of a sixth grade social studies teacher who decided to have her students go through an election process, the object being to teach the kids about democracy. The students, it turned out, were enthusiastic and got into it. Even though the their parents had fostered a highly competitive atmosphere, especially as it related to academics, the kids got past the jealousies and resentments that can go with such circumstances, and elected a young woman who happened to be the smartest one in their class as the president of their mock country. Everything went well for the whole school year.

But the next year, things changed. By then, the parental pressure for good grades was so intense that the kids began to turn on their former president. They resented her superior academic performance and the respect she'd garnered from them. They began to spread untrue stories about how she studied all the time, pinning the nickname of ‘The Computer’ on her. The message they were sending her was clear: Dumb down and be the way we want you to be!

This is a story that gets played out in many different ways in our world. And not just among young people. The crowd may love us as long as we’re doing what they want us to do, as long as their egos are boosted, as long as we do their bidding. But if something we say or do displeases them, they’ll vote us off the island in a hurry.

This, folks, is the real story of Palm Sunday. Jesus was welcomed into Jerusalem. Everybody was happy. Yet amid the Palm Sunday celebrating was an atmosphere of implied violence, of threatened rejection. The actions and the words with which the crowds welcomed Jesus were fraught with ambiguity.

Their words seemed to speak of submission and surrender, taken as they were from Psalm 118: “Save us, we beseech you, O Lord!...give us success…” But in this context, the crowds also seem to be telling Jesus, “Take the lead in a rebellion against the Romans. Be the king we want you to be!”

The leafy branches or palm leaves used by the crowd convey a similarly mixed message. They may have just been a convenient way of welcoming Jesus, broken off the trees that set outside the city walls of Jerusalem. But palm leaves and branches were also traditionally used by God’s people to celebrate some victory in war. The message seems to be, “Jesus, be our general. Lead us as an army to destroy Roman power over us. Give us what we want: the plunder of war and victory.”

These crowds, itching for war and conquest, must have scratched their heads at what Jesus did that evening. He simply stepped into the Temple, looked around, and went back to Bethany for the night. It would be a bit like someone being elected president, showing up at the Inaugural ceremonies three months later, stepping up to the podium, looking around, and then walking away.

The crowds and Jesus’ many followers must have been further mystified by what he did the next day. He didn’t confront the Romans, demanding their surrender or removal from Jerusalem and the surrounding Judean territory. Instead, he went to the Temple where, appalled by how the place was being misused--not as a place of prayer and worship, but as a place for price gouging and injustice--he threw the extortionists out of the place. Rather than confronting their foreign enemies, Jesus turned on His fellow Judeans and said that there was something rotten in their religion, their spirituality, their souls.

On Palm Sunday, the crowds welcomed Jesus because they thought He had come to do their will. What they came to realize in the days after that is that He had really come to do the Father’s will. He really had come, as He had already said, “to serve, not to be served and to give His life as a ransom for many.” He hadn’t come to confirm them in their sense of moral superiority, but to confront them with their need of a Savior and to be that Savior!

And so, like the students at that school in Greeley's story, disappointed and shown up by the girl they had voted for the year before, the Jerusalem crowds turned on Jesus. On Thursday night, just four days after His triumphant entry, Jesus was arrested and the next day, the same crowds cried for His blood. They cried too that the Roman governor release a murderous thug, Jesus bar Abbas be set free. (This man was otherwise known as Barabbas; whose name in English is Jesus, son of the Father.) Barabbas was a terrorist. The crowds may have thought that he had the stomach they felt that Jesus of Nazareth didn’t have for revolution. The people were desperate for a leader who would follow them. They were sure now that Jesus, the son of Joseph wouldn't do it. Maybe Barabbas would.

Now here’s the question that Palm Sunday forces all churches and all Christians to confront: Will we be like the crowds or will we learn to be disciples, true followers of Jesus?

I know that too often in my own life, I’ve followed the crowd or followed the world's way of doing things, instead of following Jesus. (After all that's the easy way to go!) But how exactly do we make the choice of discipleship over crowd-following?

Above all, it entails praying and striving to live by the words, “Your will be done,” not, “God, do my will.”

This has been and remains a hard lesson for me. I have a vivid imagination. I can imagine all sorts of wonderful things God could do in my life. “Lord,” I’m inclined to pray, “if you’d bless me in this way or that, imagine all the good I could do!”

But God says, “I’d rather you imagined how much good you could do with the blessings I’ve already given to you.”

The Palm Sunday crowds probably thought that their lives would be so much better if the Romans were toppled and sent home. Then, they could be good believers in God, people with the freedom to love and serve their neighbors, as God commands His people.

Today, we might think, “If only we could win the Lottery...”

“If only we could get a big tax refund...”

“If only the kids weren’t involved in so many activities...”

“If only I had my health…”

“If things weren’t so uncertain financially…”

If a thousand other things were just so, then we could be really good followers of Christ. We could take up a ministry of service. We could teach Sunday School. We could invite a nonchurchgoing friend to worship with us. We could give more to the causes God cares about in the world.

But Jesus calls us to follow now on our current schedules, with our current incomes, under our current circumstances, just as He loves us now.

There are no perfect times for following Jesus.

The crosses Jesus calls us to take up are heavy and almost always inconvenient.

But taking them up is how we take up Jesus and take up the eternal life with God He offers free.

Our call is to turn from sin and surrender to Jesus Christ now. We’re to experience Christ’s presence in our lives today, even in challenging times. Our call is to love God and love neighbor now, today, just as God loves and blesses and cares about us in this moment.

Four nights after the first Palm Sunday, Jesus went to the Garden of Gethsemane and prayed, “Abba [an Aramaic word that literally means, Daddy], Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup [of death on the cross] from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.” Through His death and resurrection, Jesus won new and everlasting life for all who follow Him.

In thankfulness, we can submit to God’s will for our lives. We can become servants who by lives of active love for others God uses to do a world of good.

The great nineteenth century evangelist Dwight Moody’s life was changed when he heard a preacher say words like these: “The world has yet to see what God might do in the life of someone wholly devoted to Him.” Moody prayerfully asked God that night to let him be a person wholly devoted to the Savior Who went to a cross for him.

May that be our prayer, too.

40-Days to Servanthood: Day 40

We worship God through our servanthood.

When I served on the church council of my home congregation in Columbus, our pastor once told us, “You can worship God by serving your neighbor.” One man reacted negatively. He felt that we expressed our worship only by our expressions of love for God--our service of praise--on Sunday mornings.

But that man was wrong. The apostle John writes, “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.” (First John 4:20) Jesus Himself paired love for God and love for neighbor into a single “great commandment” (Matthew 22:36-38).

There is an inextricable link between worship and servanthood. This is why worship gatherings are often called “services.” In them, God teaches us how to love Him and to love others, to live with a focus upward to Him and outward to our neighbor. But unless our services of praise are matched by service to our neighbors in Jesus’ Name, our worshiping is nothing more than lip service.

In the book of Genesis, we’re told that one of Adam’s and Eve’s sons, Abel, offered God “the firstlings” of his flock. His brother, Cain, gave God the leftovers from his crops. When Cain noted God’s pleasure with Abel’s offerings and the displeasure with which his own offerings were met, he was resentful and killed Abel. When God asked Cain where Abel was, Cain responded angrily, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:1-16)

Centuries later, Jesus was asked another question: “Who is my neighbor?” He responded with the story of a man who was mugged by bandits and left to die on the road. Two religious officials, a levite and a priest, each having duties associated with public worship in Judea, passed by the dying man. But, in Jesus’ story, a Samaritan man stopped and took care of the wounded victim. By serving his neighbor, the Samaritan was the one who truly worshiped God. (Luke 10:25-37)

If our love for God is authentic, it will be seen in active service to others. Of course, we won’t always express this authentic love for God and neighbor. Christians, like other human beings, are infected with the disease of sin. But God is willing to help us when we fail. “If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (First John 1:9). All who believe in Jesus Christ are to live, as Martin Luther reminds us, in “daily repentance and renewal,” seeking God’s help as we strive each day to love God and to love others.

This coming Sunday, as we celebrate Jesus’ resurrection, I hope that you’ll make a personal commitment to God, a commitment that the God Who calls us to a life of active love is anxious to help us fulfill. I hope that everybody who has been reading this series will approach their (your) call to service with prayer and attentiveness and ask God to help you undertake a renewed and joyful Christian servanthood. “Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks, by which we offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe; for indeed our God is a consuming fire.” (Hebrews 12:28-29)

We worship God through our servanthood.

Bible Passage to Ponder: “...those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.” (First John 4:20)